Kess Kolumn: March Madness
Issue   |   Tue, 03/04/2014 - 23:37

Every basketball fan associates the calendar change from February to March with the word “Madness”. March Madness, the namesake of the NCAA Div. I Basketball Championship, is one of the greatest sporting events every year.

I won’t argue it’s more entertaining than the Super Bowl, the World Cup or the Olympics. However, I am not shy to praise Div. I College Basketball and March Madness over the NBA and its playoffs.

The unpredictability, volatility and larger skill gap between the players makes college basketball more exciting to watch than the NBA.

While the two leagues share similarities, they are also marked by drastic differences. The most obvious contrast between the two is the players’ motivation.

In the NBA, players are undoubtedly driven by monetary compensation, and the league’s minimum annual salary is an astounding $490,180. Even the least talented players make enough money to live a luxurious lifestyle. The average salary of NBA players is $5.1 million, which is more than players in any other professional sport including the MLB ($3.3 million), the NHL ($2.4 million) and the NFL ($1.9 million).

Excluding scholarships, college players are not paid; as a result, college basketball players are less self-directed and more externally driven. They play for the pride of their teammates, their coaches and their school.

Money seems to have negatively impacted the level and style of play in the NBA. College basketball games are marked by more team-oriented play. The NBA is an offense-dominated league with players paying little attention to defense. Meanwhile, college basketball is equally offensive as it is defensive, making points hard to come by and the margin of victory much closer.

NBA games are 48 minutes and have a 24 second shot clock, while college basketball games are 40 minutes and have a 35 second shot clock. The average NBA team scores 100.4 points per game and the average NCAA Div. I team scores 71.4 points. While some argue that offense sells tickets, it is a defensive-presence that creates hardly fought, closely contested games that go down to the wire.

NBA teams are characterized and identified by individual players. The Miami Heat is Lebron James’ team. The Oklahoma City Thunder is Kevin Durant’s team. The New York Knicks is Carmelo Anthony’s team. The Chicago Bulls will always be Michael Jordan’s team. In college basketball, coaches are unquestionably the faces of their teams. The Duke Blue Devils is Mike Krzyzewski’s team. The Michigan State Spartans is Tom Izzo’s team. The Kentucky University Wildcat’s is John Calipari’s team. The UCLA Bruins will always be John Wooden’s team.

With coaches, rather than players, at the forefront of college basketball teams, players respect and listen to their coaches and are much more disciplined. In addition, schematics, organization and fundamentals, including boxing out for rebounds and keeping hands up on defense, become much more pivotal in college basketball than in the NBA.

The NBA has become much more of a one-on-one game compared to the five-on-five game that marks college basketball. While there are less acrobatic, freakishly athletic and newsworthy plays in college basketball, there are more stimulating and exhilarating games. The team-focused mentality of college basketball in contrast to the player-focused mentality of the NBA lends itself to increased volatility and decreased predictability in competition.

If you asked any knowledgeable NBA fan in the beginning of the year to predict the top two teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences at the end of the 2014 season, there is a high probability they would say the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers in the East, and the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs in the West.

Guess what? The Heat and Pacers were in the Eastern Conference championship the year before and the Spurs were in the Western Conference championship. The Thunder were expected to reach the conference championship as the No. 2 seed but lost due to a hobbled Russell Westbrook.

In the NBA, teams that are better on paper and that are expected to win generally come out on top. I suppose this is due to the lack of defense and the role of individual players in the NBA and decreased parity. In college basketball, there is a lot more mobility and unpredictability. The AP Preseason Rankings had only one of the top-five ranked teams in the current AP Rankings. That team is Duke, who has been outside the top-10 for the majority of the season.

The difficulty of predicting college basketball, especially during March Madness, makes it all the more exciting. Top seeded teams falter and unranked, under-skilled teams score upset victories.

Take Syracuse. The Orange held the No. 1 overall national ranking with a 25-0 record. However, Syracuse was dethroned of their top seed after a very unexpected loss to Boston College, who held an unimpressive 7-19 record on the season. BC’s 19 losses were the most by a team ever to defeat the No. 1 overall ranked team.

Even more impressive was the fact that BC won on the road because Syracuse had won 46 straight home games against unranked opponents at the Carrier Dome, and BC wasn’t even close to being ranked. The Orange went on to lose two of its next three games. Upsets like these, that are much less common in the NBA, keep college basketball fans intrigued.

In 2010 and 2011, Butler University, the small, unknown Indiana school, miraculously made the finals in consecutive years as the fifth and eigth-seeds respectively. This amazing run propelled Butler’s head coach Brad Stevens to take Doc River’s position as head coach of the Boston Celtics.

Last year, Wichita State reached the final four as the ninth seed and Florida Golf Coast University reached the Sweet 16 as a 15th-seed. FGCU was the first team to advance that far, upsetting a No. 2 and No. 7 seed in the process. This year, Wichita State has an impressive record of 31-0 and is looking to make another tournament run.

March Madness is simply more entertaining than the NBA Playoffs. With a field of 68 teams, I have learned to expect the unexpected. Obscure non-conference teams beat highly praised top-tier teams. Heroes are born in both players and coaches. I know that my bracket will be marked up by a slew of red X’s, but the fun of March Madness comes in filling out the bracket and hoping for the best championship.

Paul Gilbert (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/05/2014 - 13:14

You make some very salient points in your analysis. March Madness is a truly unique phenomena in the sports world. But comparing college basketball to the NBA is like comparing apples to mangos. The NCAA tournament is a one and out affair, which makes each game more tense and dramatic. And college fans have a different brand of passion than pro basketball fans, with such deep emotional ties to their schools. And yes, college basketball is more of a coaches' game, but that's partly because the players are so young and the best ones leave after a year or two at most, so they don't have the opportunity to gain veteran experience and leadership skills. Personally, I would like to see college players stay for two years, as proposed by the NBA.

Now, on to professional basketball and the operative word is professional. It is a multi-billion dollar global business, the players are paid outrageous sums of money (but really no different than the rest of the entertainment industry, what does George Clooney make per picture or Beyonce earn per concert?). And money always changes things, especially big money. Meanwhile, there is a growing movement for top NCAA athletes to get paid for their performances, as they generate huge revenue streams for their schools.

Meanwhile, there is no comparison etween the talent level in the NBA and NCAA. Every NBA team is made up of players who were the top stars of their basketball programs in college and NBA superstars are perhaps the most elite athletes in the world, who feature nightly exhibits of pure artistry at its highest level. Jabari Parker and Alan Wiggins can't hold a candle to LeBron James and Kevin Durant or 30 0ther NBA players for that matter. These are boys compared to men.

The NBA playoffs are also best of seven series, so the emotional swings aren't as dramatic and there are often first round mismatches, as the top teams in both conferences usually dispatch the lower seeds rather easily (but not always). But here's what I think is the most important distinction: I watch a lot of professional basketball and there are playoff caliber games on numerous times per week, sometimes numerous times per night. Incredible games with playoff caliber intensity and performances, more so when the top ten teams in the league go head to head (but on any given night, it can be any two teams). So the "playoffs" aren't confined to the postseason. Watch an Indiana/Miami, Oklahoma City/San Antonio, Clippers/Warriors and you will see fiercely contested competition at their most intense and highest level play. Or it could be a Portland/Dallas for that matter, or a Washington/Cleveland game, you just never know. It's the old, on any given night.

Lastly, you have composed a very thoughtful and provoking blog and sports fans love to debate this issue. My personal take is to enjoy both March Madness and the NBA playoffs, like taking incredible vacations to vastly different and exotic countries. It's all basketball and it's all good. Better yet, it can be all great.